After many years as frontman of Manchester-based band I Am Kloot, in 2013 John Bramwell took a change of direction and set out on a “Never-ending” solo tour that charted a course that has criss-crossed this country and into the continent. It’s a journey that has wended its way though clubs and pubs, churches and village halls giving plenty of time for musing on life and love, hope and heartbreak, desire and despair en route. Returning to Union Chapel in London tonight, John is promoting his first full solo album Leave Alone The Empty Spaces, self-released in November 2017, with this latest series of intimate gigs.
The opening set for the evening is from Dave Fidler. Country and blues influences from Bob Dylan to an homage to Tommy Emmanuel run through his music. Often drawing upon personal stories, Dave‘s excellent and highly relatable song-writing skills shine out. Easy Gone, Easy Come penned for the birth of his son – “will we live / to see your children” – is particularly poignant. Taking Over is a self-assured display of intricate finger style and slide guitar playing.
Younger brother Andy adds cajon and vocal harmonies for parts of the set and Dave also performs one of Andy’s songs. It’s not hard to see why John picked out Dave to become his stalwart companion for the majority of this never-ending tour. So to many here Dave Fidler needs no introduction and the rest are quickly won over by his easy charm and the sheer quality of his musicianship.
During the break between sets a friendly hubbub rises up among those who’ve made the pilgrimage to Union Chapel on a chilly November evening in anticipation of the appearance of the main man of the night. John Bramwell has long been recognised as a lyrical genius. In 1989 under the pseudonym Johnny Dangerously he released You, Me and the Alarm Clock, an acoustic mini-LP that was championed by John Peel and featured in The Guardian‘s 2006 list of “the greatest albums you’ve never heard”.
Ten years later he was the driving force behind the three-piece band I Am Kloot, who became renowned for their slightly twisted love songs and thrilling live performances. I Am Kloot were hampered by some unsuccessful label pairings, but their highest acclaim was reached with a Mercury Prize nomination in 2010. The trio was quietly shelved in 2016 so that John could focus on his solo output.
The lights dim as four musicians, including Dave and Andy Fidler, strike up an instrumental theme before John enters the stage, pint glass raised in salutation. Together they launch into a beautifully nuanced Leave Alone The Empty Spaces, the title song from the new solo album. Then, left alone on stage, John continues with a clever blend of older Kloot classics, reworked for an acoustic setting, alongside his new songs.
It’s a splendid way to showcase these latest works, drawn from his reflections and experiences on the road. Travel and transience are prominent themes. Trains may run late and tax demands loom within the departures and arrivals of the melancholy Meet Me At The Station.
Pausing to ponder on keeping hold of treasured memories Time’s Arrow asks “Does it matter that a daydream’s broken from its tethers while you sleep?”. Although the songs appear outwardly simple and sparse, wonderful imagery such as this elevates John‘s words above the everyday into the magical. Along with his distinctive vocals and superb guitar playing it’s a combination that has the audience entranced.
Following this selection of slow, intense numbers the tempo gears up a notch as John covers some more lively I Am Kloot tracks. In Fingerprints he reveals a heart-felt songwriter’s lament “I guess that I’ve been singing all my life, well that’s right, and that is fine”. A tender rendition of No Fear of Falling sounds stunning within the warm acoustics of the chapel walls and the reverb enhances the darkly dramatic romp of Bullets.
Having contributed keyboards on a number of these songs Alan Lowles plays the lilting accordion lines for To The Brink, where John says audience participation in a drunken and out-of-tune fashion would be highly appropriate. Then The Moon Is A Blind Eye brings an atmospheric close to this section with John’s plaintive voice rising over delicate piano notes.
At various points through the evening John declares that he’s pleased to be back at this special location and he’s “going to enjoy every minute of it” and it’s clear that he is. As are the crowd even, or especially, when they’re being playfully teased or cajoled by John for which he receives some good-natured heckling and laughter in return. Moments of slight chaos over fumbled guitar changes and set list blunders are also played on.
Acting at times as a joker and lovable rascal, his wry quips and self-deprecating asides have become a traditional part of the entertainment. With it comes a sense of the genuine affection that extends between the audience and the artist which is a testament to John’s ability to connect with people.
The last third of the set concentrates on the most current of John‘s songs. The initial four musicians are back on stage with John – Alan Lowles (keyboard), Dave Fidler (guitar & bass, vocals), Andy Fidler (cajon, vocals), Adrian Gautrey (pedal steel & synth) – signalling another change of pace. The strongly rhythmic Who Is Anybody? is a great introduction to the more upbeat tunes. John comments that “These songs are in a major key and, frankly, it’s doing things with my mind!” producing another round of laughter.
Further questions about identity arise in the unreleased Working My Mind Off – “I’m gonna fake it until the people don’t appear at my door. What am I for?”. These songs have been road-tested in various formats over the past year or so, but tonight’s tight ensemble really hits the mark. It helps that all of them contributed to tracks on John’s new album.
There’s a brief reversion as John and Alan perform the hauntingly pensive ballad Sat Beneath The Lightning Tree before the others rejoin to deliver the finale of two more as yet unreleased numbers, Get Away From This and World Full Of Flowers, full of fine harmonies and enchanting melodies. From slow-burning start through to uplifting finish this concert has been a journey underlining John’s undeniable talent and the appreciation from the audience is obvious.
John Bramwell has reinvented himself from the headier days of “drinking and disaster” with I Am Kloot to a more contemplative, but still powerful, solo sound. It’s a treat to experience the Kloot tracks in a stripped back form that allows the lyrics to stand out. And the new songs display an added maturity, but still retain an edge that proves that John has still got it when it comes to translating even the most elusive feelings into words. The deep romanticism and poetry of his lyrics are ever present in his work.
It seems that this new phase for John has reawoken his creativity and fuelled his desire to take to the road to share his brilliant music and delight audiences far and wide. But who is John Bramwell? Catch him on tour to find out more.
John Bramwell played at Union Chapel, London on 28th November 2017